Book Reviews: ‘And We’re Off’ Explores Mother-Daughter Relations, While ‘The Devil’s Diary’ Mixes History and Real-Life Treasure Hunt

0

And We’re Off

Dana Schwartz

$17.99, hardcover

Penguin Young Readers Group

Warning: Don’t read And We’re Off, the debut novel by Jewish author Dana Schwartz, unless you’re ready to hand your wallet over to the nearest airline attendant and traipse around Europe.

Schwartz’s young adult tale follows aspiring artist Nora Parker-Holmes (half-Jewish, half-agnostic, as she says) as she heads to Europe for a solo adventure courtesy of her grandfather, an acclaimed artist, before she starts a program at a prestigious artists’ colony in Ireland. Solo, that is, until her mother — with whom she has a less-than-stellar, strained relationship — announces as Nora heads into the airport that she’s joining her daughter.

What follows is a summer-long journey around France, Belgium, Ireland, Italy and England with opportunity for some prime mother-daughter bonding and banter. Nora and her mother, Alice, each come to terms with the parts of their lives that they need to reconcile — Nora’s passion for art and creeping anxiety of feeling untalented and inadequate as her mother pushes her to pursue something more stable, plus Alice’s lingering sadness from her divorce from Nora’s father (who then married Nora’s former math teacher), and her own career adversities — and try to do it together.

At 24, Schwartz has a gift with getting into the head of a college-bound 17-year-old struggling with her own identity and passions and determining who she wants to be. Nora’s voice is relatable and charming; her anxiety, jealousy, pride and elation felt through humor and narration filled with enough Harry Potter, Shakespeare and even Lord Byron references to satisfy any literature enthusiast.

Schwartz, an entertainment writer for the New York Observer and the voice responsible for parody Twitter account @GuyInYourMFA, is able to put into words the feelings that we often can’t find the words for. As Nora stands in the face of so many great artists as she tours the Musée d’Orsay, Schwartz is able to describe Nora’s contemplation of her own artistry as she looks at a van Gogh: “That feeling of being completely overwhelmed, of insignificance in the face of greatness.”

The book is certainly filled with classic YA tropes: romance (with a cute Irish boy, no less), teenage angst, the search for identity, the testing of friendships. It would be easy to fall into these tropes, but Schwartz carefully and mostly successfully avoids getting lost in the predictability that might attach itself to a YA novel through humor and general earnestness displayed by both Nora and Alice.

Were it a bit longer, however, the novel might have been able to add more growth to the characters, as it wraps up pretty quickly, leaving room for unanswered questions. A subplot of Nora’s history with a boy her best friend is now dating, with whom Nora had an are-they-aren’t-they “relationship,” detracted a little too much attention from the rest of the story and had a squeaky clean ending that the novel probably would have been fine without.

And though there are other relationships (see: cute Irish boy) in the story, the true romances of the novel are the yearning love between mother and daughter as well as the love for oneself and being true to your passions. As Hamlet’s Polonius says (and is mentioned in And We’re Off): “To thine own self be true.”

Alice’s determination to make the relationship with Nora work while embracing and understanding each other is an outcome you’ll surely find yourself rooting for through its difficulties while also filling you with an immense craving for Florentine gelato.

Marissa Stern

The Devil’s Diary

Robert K. Wittman and David Kinney

$18.99, paperback

Harper

One might think that 70 years after the end of World War II, the number of previously unreported interested stories would be diminishing.

One would be wrong.

The Devil’s Diary: Alfred Rosenberg and the Stolen Secrets of the Third Reich explores the role of one of Adolf Hitler’s lesser-known inner-circle henchman. Rosenberg’s official titles included Leader of the Nazi Foreign Policy Office, Reich Minister for the Occupied Eastern Territories and Reischsleiter (national leader), but perhaps he could be best described as Hitler’s chief ideologist.

Rosenberg also is of interest to scholars and historians because he left behind a diary documenting his life as a key Third Reich figure.

Aside from providing interesting insights, the story of the diary itself is fascinating.

After being discovered in a Bavarian castle — as part of a massive cache of documents accumulated by a Nazi aristocrat who spent the war years plundering assorted treasures — the diary wound up with Robert Kempner, a German Jewish lawyer. Kempner had left the country right before the war began, but returned to help prosecute Nazis (including Rosenberg) during the Nuremberg trials.

There’s even a local connection, as Kempner lived in Lansdowne.

When Kempner died in 1993, he left his massive collection of documents to his sons, although former mistresses actually retained physical custody of them. When the sons tried to donate his papers to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, the diary again disappeared, setting off a search that included co-author Robert K. Wittman, who founded and once headed the FBI’s Art Crime Team.

Mixing history and plotlines akin to National Treasure, The Devil’s Diary — originally published in 2016 but now available in paperback — makes for an engrossing read, even if the writing, at times, could have used another edit. For example, within the course of five pages, the authors refer to Lansdowne as being outside Philadelphia, as Lansdowne, Pa., and as Lansdowne, Pa., a Philadelphia suburb.

Minor quibbles? Yes, but this kind of awkward writing detracts from an otherwise interesting tome.

Andy Gotlieb